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Coming Home: State veterans cemetery in Preston services all

Austin Daily Herald - 5/26/2018

May 26--PRESTON -- On a warm Friday afternoon, the family of U.S. Army veteran Patricia Dinsen arrived at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery-Preston. They were there to bring Dinsen home to her final resting place.

Amid the rolling native prairie flowers and grass, Dinsen's loved ones gathered underneath the committal shelter. Taps were played by the American Legion Post 579 Millville honor guard, and two active members of the U.S. Army folded the American flag tightly--ensuring no red was showing--and presented it to Dinsen's adult son, Edward. A rifle volley took place, shattering the quiet with rounds. Shortly, the honor guard collected the casings from the grass, and placed them inside a red velvet pouch to present to Dinsen's family.

Carol Hanson, of St. Charles, dressed in patriotic colors, came to see her older sister's urn placed inside a white columbarium.

A temporary niche covering was placed over the opening with gentle hands by staff, which was labeled with a simple sticker:

Patricia Dinsen 1948-2017.

Eventually, an official engraved covering will be installed. Yet, it served as a marker for Dinsen's family that their veteran was taken care of, even after death.

"It's such an honor," Hanson shared. "When we came here, we knew this place was her home."

Not just Preston, but for the nation

About 170 acres of land was donated by Fillmore County to the state, and construction started in 2013. Roughly 35 acres of that land has been developed, with 15 acres of native prairie grass and flowers studding the quiet landscape.

Any eligible veteran as well as spouses and dependent children from all over the United States can be buried in Preston. Many have local ties to the southeast Minnesota region, according to Robert Gross, cemetery administrator.

"There's a common kinship," Gross shared. "Veterans have had our backs like we have theirs ... this is coming back full circle and giving them a place to go."

The cemetery has only been open for three years, with the first burial taking place on Veterans Day 2015 of two former Preston mayors. There have been 311 veteran burials, with 4,000 burial sites that have been plotted out (numbers fluctuate depending on spacing for either casketed or cremarital burials).

Preston's location is one of three state veterans cemeteries. The other two are located in Duluth and Little Falls.

Gross estimated about 10 percent of the burials were for Mower County veterans, from the Austin and Albert Lea areas; and 60 percent were from Fillmore County and Olmsted County.

The process

Already 1,200 veterans have pre-registered to be buried at the state veterans cemetery, including Gross himself. There's no binding contract, and those who change their minds would be able to do so.

"A lot of times, they're not sure," he said. "I say 'Go ahead and pre-register.' It takes the weight off of the family, who has so many other things to take care of. It's one less thing to worry about."

Once undergoing a quick eligibility background check, the veteran or his family may begin pre-planning for the arrangements by contacting the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery, and a spouse or dependent is buried based on the eligibility of the veteran.

Gross stated that to make sure a veteran is eligible, a copy of a military discharge document or a DD214 must be provided, and if these documents aren't accessible to the next of kin, the cemetery at least needs sufficient military information to allow staff to access federal U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and/or military records to establish eligibility.

Usually, the processing for eligibility takes place immediately, as soon as the application is submitted. Gross said normally, individuals would hear back after 24 hours if they're qualified to be buried at the veterans cemetery.

All burial options are free for veterans. For their spouse or dependent, it would cost about $745 for all burial options, with payment due at the time of burial.

'It means so much'

When planning for Dinsen's burial, Hanson praised staff for their attentiveness to details and for having empathy with loved ones as they made arrangements. Having the ability to make arrangements through a state veterans cemetery that services all veterans throughout the region, as well as for military spouses, was important. Hanson shared that Dinsen's husband -- also a veteran -- had reserved the space right next to his wife's vault in the columbarium when his time comes.

"I just wanted to thank the staff for such a wonderful experience, and it was so seamless," Hanson said with a warm smile. "It just means so much."

Experiences like Hanson's were precisely the reason why Gross took his job at the state veterans cemetery, and held a personal meaning.

Back in 2009, Gross attended a military funeral held for his grandfather. He recalled that there were multiple things during the services that were done poorly, and plans were unorganized. The experience left Gross feeling devastated that the memories from that day were associated with what went wrong.

"I made a vow that day to never let this happen to another family ever again," he said. "That is the memory (the families) have on that day. We don't have a second opportunity. We have only one chance to make this correct for the family."

A state veterans cemetery that's accessible to those living in the southeast Minnesota region is an opportunity that shouldn't be taken lightly, Gross added.

"Honestly, it's an amazing option to have in the area," he said. "Across the military, there's the same sentiment of care that these are 'our brothers and sisters in uniform.' Whether they're stationed in California or away overseas. They're our brothers and sisters, and they're coming home.'"


(c)2018 the Austin Daily Herald (Austin, Minn.)

Visit the Austin Daily Herald (Austin, Minn.) at www.austindailyherald.com

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